Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: June was the month of conferences …
Marc Bloomfield
I was fortunate enough to have a paper accepted for the 2023 International Legal Aid Group (ILAG) conference, ‘Challenges of access to justice’, on multidisciplinary approaches to resolving legal issues. It was a joint paper with Dr Liz Curran of Nottingham Trent University, but she was unable to attend in person. Once I heard the conference was to be hosted at Harvard Law School, I was keen to go, and it was a very special thing to do as the conference was inspiring and refreshing and a million miles away from the culture of refusal we experience within the England and Wales legal aid system.
ILAG is a network of leading international specialists in access to justice. Now in its 19th year, lawyers, academics, researchers, policymakers, legal aid commissioners and government from across the world meet and share ideas around legal aid and access to justice. The mission of the organisation is to improve evidence-based policymaking in the field of poverty legal services through discussing, disseminating and promoting research on access to justice to influence policymakers.
Professor Alan Paterson (University of Strathclyde) and the steering group (with admin support from Eileen Ritchie) do an excellent job of setting the agenda, incorporating innovative practice, national reports and legal and practical updates from across the world and then putting the conference on. In Boston, we had a very warm welcome from Professor David Wilkins, vice dean and faculty director of Harvard Law School.
It was great to hear of the Argentinian Justice and Health Bus, the Denmark Street Lawyers, the Canadian Mobile Rural Law Van and the Legal Empowerment Camps in rural India, in which government agencies hold ‘Camp Days’, organised to facilitate people’s access to benefit. There were common themes: solutions around the problem of shortage of lawyers, getting to those clients who are most in need and looking at technical and other solutions to the gap between legal need and delivery.
My presentation was well received, especially the idea of lawyers and non-lawyers working together, and, although listed for the Friday 9 am slot – the morning after the conference dinner – it was well attended. It’s a shame that our own Legal Aid Agency wasn’t in attendance as it would have seen how important legal aid is to so many across the globe.
A highlight of the conference for me was meeting Dr Jess Mant from Monash University (formerly Cardiff University) in person (at last) and catching up with Jacqui Kinghan, now at the University of Glasgow. Jess was presenting an interesting paper on legal need and parenthood, and Jacqui, a paper on the findings from the England and Wales Legal Aid Census 2021.
Back in England, we held the annual LAG Housing Law Conference, which was sold out and had a packed audience at Gatehouse Chambers. Next year we have to find a bigger venue! The idea for LAG conferences is to have a mix of plenaries to make you think and inspire and then practical sessions to give lawyers, advisers and activists the tools they need to assist with legal problems (see page 5 of this issue). The feedback from the conference showed that we had been successful in achieving just that. We had: ‘[An] excellent programme of topics’; ‘A really interesting mix of speakers’; as well as my favourite, ‘Content was depressing and inspiring in equal measure.’
As Legal Action went to press, I was very excited to be speaking at the first Junior Housing Law Practitioners’ Association conference at the end of June, hoping to inspire the next generation of housing lawyers.
We have had headline housing news that Britons are ‘to be [a] priority on council house lists’, as ministers look at tightening rules for migrants,1See, for example: Steven Swinford and Chris Smyth, ‘Britons “to be priority on council house lists”’, Times, 18 June 2023. and the sixth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. Hundreds of people gathered on the evening of 14 June 2023 for the annual silent walk in memory of the 72 people who lost their lives – this year feeling significant, said Natasha Elcock, chair of Grenfell United, as ‘it marks 72 months since the fire ... a month for every life’.
On other news, and I know out of context with the rest of the editorial, but I was shocked and saddened to see a woman sent to prison for having an abortion in 2022.2Tobi Thomas, ‘Outrage at jail sentence for woman who took abortion pills later than UK limit’, Guardian, 12 June 2023. Whatever one might feel about the detail of the case, it can serve no purpose to send a woman with three children to prison for terminating a pregnancy. We have made progress protecting the space around abortion clinics and, having been involved in advocating for a buffer zone in the London Borough of Ealing, and it being the first to be implemented, I know what a difference that has made. We now need to do the same with the criminal law and I hope the case will be a catalyst for change.
1     See, for example: Steven Swinford and Chris Smyth, ‘Britons “to be priority on council house lists”’, Times, 18 June 2023. »
2     Tobi Thomas, ‘Outrage at jail sentence for woman who took abortion pills later than UK limit’, Guardian, 12 June 2023. »